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Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
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by Jay Seaver

"'Mesrine' finishes the only way it - and he - can."
4 stars

The first half of Jean-François Richet's two-part biography of French gangster Jacques Mesrine, "Killer Instinct", was quiet good; the second half, "Public Enemy Number One", is even better: As much as it's still shuffling a lot of characters in and out, it's telling one strong story in a way that's both intense and highly entertaining.

Public Enemy Number One starts by flashing forward to 1979 (the aftermath to Killer Instinct's prologue) before jumping back to 1973, where Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) has been apprehended by the law but is suffering from no resultant lack of bravado; he's already plotting his next escape. He'll alternate daring escapes with audacious robberies, in the process meeting fellow escape artist François Besse (Mathieu Amalric) and new lady love Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier) and making an enemy of Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet). As dogged as the detective's pursuit is, though, Mesrine's worst enemy may be his own legend, and how he is starting to believe it.

This movie doesn't pick up right where its predecessor left off in time - about four years have past - but Mesrine in this film is the character that he spent Killer Instinct becoming: A man who believes himself to be a devil-may-care modern swashbuckler, harnessing his personal charisma with ease to tweak the police and charm the public. It's a funny, charismatic performance, but even as Cassel is making the audience laugh, he's also perfectly showing the dark side of this personality: A desperate desire not just to succeed, but to matter. As the movie goes on, this arrogance and desperation takes on a greater and greater prominence in Cassel's performance, even as it becomes more unlikely - with his increasing scraggliness and middle-age spread, he becomes something akin to an aging rock star, confusing charisma with significance.

(That paunch is real, by the way - Cassel packed on the pounds to play the middle-aged Mesrine, and the films were shot in reverse order as he took the weight off.)

It's not a one-man show, of course; as with the previous episode, there are a lot of characters who are only a factor for a portion of the six-plus years that the film spans. Ludivine Sagnier, for instance, doesn't appear until about halfway through, but she puts a charge into the movie, selling us on her being drawn to a Mesrine who is maybe a bit past his prime while still having generous sex appeal of her own. She acts as a counterweight to Mathieu Amalric, whose job as Besse is to show us a stabler, more cautious outlaw than Mesrine. And while we don't see Olivier Gourmet's Broussard as much as we might, he makes for a respectable adversary.

The movie can use one of those, as the movie is as packed with exciting sequences as the first, including a couple of excellent escape sequences. As in Killer Instinct, the action scenes are both crisply shot and edited as well as a great way to track Mesrine's progression as the film goes on - the early ones are charming and clever, even funny at times, but there's increasing danger and darkness as the film goes on, climaxing on a scene where, in an apparent attempt to add meaning and importance to his actions, Mesrine could lose a piece of his soul.

That's not the finale, though - for that, the movie comes full-circle to the moments that opened the first film, and it's a nifty lesson in how editing, scoring, and context can transform a scene, and what had been a energetic few minutes of split-screened cool setting Mesrine up as a legend becomes a tense demonstration of how paranoid the title character is becoming and how the world is closing in. The opening titles have warned us that all films are fictions, even those based upon real people, and sometimes the same scene isn't even the same fiction.

And while I suspect that the "Mesrine" films are fairly accurate - the credits seem to indicate the co-operation of surviving characters, and there are untaken opportunities to streamline the story - that's maybe not as important as them being exciting. Aside from the action, Cassel has the role of a lifetime, creating an outlaw as complex as he is romantic.

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originally posted: 09/12/10 13:09:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  03-Sep-2010 (R)
  DVD: 29-Mar-2011


  DVD: 29-Mar-2011

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